The Spacecraft Tarot: Columbia

Tippy Ki Yay
6 min readJan 28, 2022
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Devil will destroy you with temptation.

Whether or not one believes in the Devil, the temptation to take the wrong path is always there. To be seduced by the Devil is to fall victim to humankind’s worst instruments of corruption: greed, ignorance, selfishness.

When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, NASA had already suffered two major catastrophic accidents of a similar nature in its past: the Apollo 1 launchpad fire and the space shuttle Challenger disaster. In each case, the agency had mourned the immeasurable loss of the lives of these crews, put together a list of lessons learned, and made steps to try to improve NASA’s safety culture.

But seven more people were lost in the Columbia accident, and they were lost to very similar systemic failures as to the first two incidents: a prioritization of timeliness and costliness over safety. Teams got so caught up with scheduling pressures and budget constraints that they downplayed any signs or hints that the space shuttle and its crew were in any danger.

The STS-1 mission launches on April 12, 1981. Image Credit: NASA

Following the success of the Moon landings through the Apollo program, NASA began focusing its efforts on creating the world’s first reusable spacecraft that could bring both people and payloads into low Earth orbit. The Space Transportation System (STS) missions, or more commonly known as the space shuttle missions, began on April 12, 1981 with the first flight of Columbia from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The space shuttle fleet — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — flew on a total of 135 missions over the course of three decades.

Some of the space shuttle’s most important accomplishments included deploying and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, assembling the International Space Station, and bringing 355 people into space, including the first American woman (Sally Ride), the first African-American man (Guy Bluford), and the first African-American woman (Mae Jemison).

Mae Jemison aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-47 mission in 1992. Image Credit: NASA

The space shuttle missions combined an orbiter vehicle with a giant external fuel tank, two solid rocket boosters, and three space shuttle main engines. During launch, the rocket boosters jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean to be retrieved and reused, and the only part that was not reused — the fuel tank — burned up in the atmosphere. The orbiter returned home by sliding into the Earth’s atmosphere and landing on a runway, similar to how an airplane lands.

On January 28, 1986, NASA and the rest of the world watched in shock as the Challenger space shuttle burst 73 seconds after liftoff. All seven crew members perished aboard, including the first civilian to fly aboard the space shuttle, middle school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

To determine the reason for the tragedy, investigation teams researched both the hardware failure and the organizational failure that would result in such a devastating loss. The Rogers Commission concluded that NASA had been trying to take on too much work with too little resources and not enough time.

Christa McAuliffe during training for the STS-51L mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Image Credit: NASA

Despite the fact that concerns had been brought up about the inelasticity of the O-ring seals on the solid rocket boosters, and how they could contribute to propellants escaping and igniting, teams felt that launching seven human beings on this vehicle was an “acceptable risk.” Engineers fell into an illogical pattern of thinking, “we’ve never had a catastrophic accident before, and therefore the vehicle is safe.” The pressures to avoid launch delays and keep the space shuttle on a regular schedule were intense. Teams ultimately decided to launch despite evidence that disaster was possible.

The agency paused the space shuttle program for two years while NASA addressed the O-ring seal issue, as well as the obviously flawed safety culture within the organization. Eventually, the space shuttle program resumed to a regular schedule of spaceflights.

Sadly, less than twenty years later, the space shuttle program suffered another incomprehensible loss. By all appearances, NASA did not completely learn its lesson with Challenger.

Although the O-ring issue had been addressed, another issue became apparent over time: teams began to notice that some of the insulating foam that helped to maintain the temperature of the external tank would shed throughout the mission, especially during launch. The issue had even been recorded: more than 80% of the shuttle missions for which imagery was available experienced foam loss prior to the Columbia disaster.

The STS-107 crew: mission specialist David Brown, mission commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, pilot William McCool, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. Image Credit: NASA

Because the foam shedding issue was so common, engineering teams assumed that it was an “acceptable risk,” and not worth the cost and expense of delaying launch schedules. Those who spoke up about any possible danger posed to the crew were quickly silenced.

Of the seven crew members aboard, STS-107 was the first spaceflight for four of the astronauts. The crew also included the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and the first woman of Indian descent to go to space, Kalpana Chawla.

STS-107 launched aboard Columbia on January 16, 2003, from Kennedy Space Center. Ground support teams reviewing the launch imagery discovered that 82 seconds after launch, a piece of foam fell from where the Orbiter attached to the external tank. The foam loss did not affect the 16-day mission until the orbiter attempted to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on February 3.

Unbeknownst to the crew, the foam had struck the edge of the left wing, creating a breach that widened as superheated air entered the cavity. As breach tore the wing apart, Columbia crew lost control of the vehicle at speeds of over 10,000 miles per hour. The orbiter shattered, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

With debris scattered across 2,000 square miles, search teams were only able to recover about 40% of the vehicle.

The Space Shuttle Columbia rolls towards Launch Pad 39A atop the Mobile Launcher Platform in preparation for the STS-107 mission. Image Credit: NASA

Once again, teams were brought together to determine the root causes of the tragedy. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board discovered that NASA officials declined an offer from the Department of Defense to use spy cameras to get a better look at the damage caused by the foam loss while Columbia was still in orbit. NASA had had the opportunity to assess the damage and save the crew before the orbiter attempted re-entry, which could have resulted in a historic close call not unlike Apollo 13. But that opportunity was not taken, and seven astronauts never made it home to their families.

There were many similarities between the Challenger accident and the Columbia accident. Tight budgets and pressures to avoid launch delays created an atmosphere where risks were downplayed and concerns were silenced.

Although NASA vowed to make changes to the safety culture in order to prevent another travesty like Challenger, clearly whatever was done was not enough.

Twenty years after Columbia, NASA has not suffered any more similar tragedies. The space shuttle program was retired in 2011 as the agency regrouped to focus on the Commercial Crew program and other endeavors.

NASA personnel are encouraged to learn about Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1 in order to encourage the workforce to speak up about safety issues and prevent any more loss of life. On NASA’s Day of Remembrance, families and workers come together and commemorate the ultimate sacrifice that was made in the name of discovery.

The Devil promises us easy shortcuts and instant gratification in exchange for our vigilance. We don’t want to believe anything bad can happen, so we ignore obvious warning signs. Do not be tempted to look the other way.

The STS-107 crew: mission specialist David Brown, pilot William McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.